Saying Thank You

I have just started reading “Mother Tongue: The English Language” by Bill Bryson (published 1990). This is one of several interesting books that I have read on language – titles such as “The King’s English” by Kingsley Amis, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss and “Lost for Words” by John Humphrys. The more sober “Full Marks: Advice on punctuation for scientific and technical writing” by John Kirkman has also proved useful.

But I feel compelled to write in relation to something he says in chapter 1:

“A speaker of Japanese must equally wend his way through a series of linguistic levels appropriate to the social position of the participants. When he says thank you he must choose between a range of meanings running from the perfunctory arigato (‘thanks’) to the decidedly more humble makotoni go shinsetsu de gozaimasu, which means ‘what you have done or propose to do is a truly and genuinely kind and honourable deed’.”

If it does not come across clearly in that extract, the implication is that English is a simple and straight-forward language when it comes to saying Thank You.

I disagree on this point, especially through written communications, but also of course when we consider slang methods of conveying Thanks: Cheers! Nice-One! or Ta (though this is not very fashionable right now). Or perhaps the slightly more posh ways using words such as gratitude or appreciation.

Or, to put it another way, why do we have to write thank-you-letters, if all we need to say is ‘Thank You’?

In English, saying ‘Thank You’ is so much more than those two words. In person, there will be any number of body-language hints that the feelings are sincere (plus perhaps a bottle of wine, chocolates, or maybe a hug). Furthermore, the ‘what’ we are thanking someone for may be far clearer in speech than it often is in writing.

In writing, we replace these visual clues and gifts with words that exhibit our desire to convey similar intentions. I perversely found that phrases like:

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention”

did not seem as well received as:

“I would like to thank you for taking the time to bring this to our attention”

even though the latter might lead someone to think “…but as it means more work for me, I won’t”. The prose and rhythm of the words, the ‘flowery-ness’ (or perhaps; additional waffle) of the language, was intended to convey the deeper sincere meaning… plus it conveyed our realisation that such communications took the author time. In other words, when writing, we are more likely to need to be specific about why we are thanking someone.

Of course, that latter ambiguity about the English language, (it being unclear whether I would like to thank you and I am thanking you, versus I am not) thanking you, can be corrected by removing the ‘I would like to’. I for one, however, find that as soon as I start padding out the basic message, it becomes difficult to stop! In my own defence, this verbosity is probably a product of my environment 😉 In this respect too, Bryson’s book comes to my aid in pointing out a long list of “expressions that say the same thing twice”, such as law and order, assault and battery, peace and quiet amongst others.

Although not specifically aimed at IT folk, the book helpfully asks (rhetorically) why we have kept commit in the language, but demit (to send away / to dismiss) has left common usage; I for one had never heard of demit before. I’m sure that it would be easier to type than rollback. And, whilst rollback has some pleasant imagery for the internal workings of a database, I also rather like the idea of choosing to ‘send away’ my bad data to oblivion… or perhaps to make it null and void?

In summary, although we do not have a massive number of ways of expressing thanks in words, I can assure you that I would feel “Thank You” might not cover it if I were ever to be presented a knighthood by the Queen. Conversely, “I would like to express my gratitude for your wonderful email listing all the things that have gone wrong with product X” might be understood as a sarcastic comment.

The way we use our words, and the patterns we use them in, convey a great deal of information about our intentions.

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